Well, several questions, actually. They’ve been flitting about my mind for a while now but, thanks to a message I received this morning, have been dragged kicking and screaming on to the page.
The message, from someone I’ve occasionally had discussions with on various comment threads, asked whether any of the representations of the Afghanistan conflict in a particular work of BBC Sherlock fan fiction were accurate. Since the fic in question wasn’t one of my own, and being suitably intrigued by the vagueness of the message’s tone, I clicked on the link and took a look.
Needless to say, what I read provoked quite a strong reaction and this is my attempt to get my own thoughts regarding research and writing fiction in order and, I hope, get your thoughts too.
This post is quite long but I do hope you’ll keep reading because this is something I really want to hear everyone’s opinions about.
The fic that prompted my introspection is currently a WIP, tagged very clearly as including mention of the Afghanistan conflict and, at the top of the first chapter, sports a disclaimer.
The disclaimer says that the authors are not part of the military and what they’ve written is based on a mixture of research, what they’ve seen in movies (I can’t recall any movies set in the current Afghanistanconflict but if anyone does know of them, please tell me so I can watch them) and guesswork. It goes on to request that no one makes any comments which point out any inaccuracies or errors which they might have made, saying that they’ve done their best and that the fic can’t be altered once it’s been posted.
So I read it.
It was immediately obvious – to me at any rate – that by research they meant “we’ve watched a few war movies and done a quick scope out of ACD canon in relation to Watson’s time in Afghanistan” but that was about it. There certainly wasn’t anything in their depictions of John on deployment to indicate they’d so much as looked up Afghanistan or the Afghanistan conflict on Wikipedia, let alone tried to get a feel for the role the British Army had and still has out there or what it’s like for the troops.
If I’m honest, I wouldn’t have continued reading past the first paragraph if I hadn’t been asked about the fic specifically. The contents of those few sentences alone were enough to dissolve any chance of me suspending my disbelief long enough to even try to get into the story. And, being very frank, I found the sheer breadth of the disregard for the realities of Afghanistanand the lives of the soldiers out on the front line astounding and it made me feel quite out of sorts. Properly cross, in fact.
From the only two comments showing on the work at the time of writing (the first of which I think might have been left by the person who messaged me and the second of which was left by one of the authors) it seems that one of the authors deleted an earlier comment which went against their request and pointed out something that was wrong with the portions of the story set in Afghanistan. The commenter who was “lucky” enough to have to their comment left up had seen the original comment before it was taken down and suggested both that the original comment had some value to it and that they’d have liked to see the authors respond rather than deleting it.
The response to still visible comment makes it very clear the authors are of the opinion that it’s allabout the story and that they don’t much care whether they’ve got anything wrong or not. They also said that the commenter was welcome to contact them directly to discuss things but they should keep any further criticism out of the comments. This made me laugh because, on the website they are using to post the fic, there isn’t a PM function (unless I’ve missed something really obvious, which is always a possibility) and neither of authors give any way to contact them directly in their profiles.
I would also dearly love to know what the comment that was deleted said because … well, because I’d like to know exactly how closely my thoughts aligned with the original commenter and whether there was any indication as to why they commented. I think I might have been tempted to comment if I actually had family members out there, rather than simply having spent a long time reading up on the subject. There is nothing like love to motivate you, as Sherlock so thoughtfully pointed out in A Study in Pink.
All of which adds up to me having some very serious, very thinky, thoughts about how my approach to, and feelings about, research when writing fiction and how they compare to everyone else’s.
Thus I’m soliciting your opinions.
Does the research for fiction – any fiction, fanfic or original works – really matter?
Do you care if what you read is as factually accurate as the author can make it?
If someone says they’ve done research – even in the same sentence at they say they’ve also used guesswork – does that give them a duty to at least get the basics correct?
To be clear, I’m not talking about the futuristic/fantasy bits of fiction where there is magic or advanced technology or supernatural things distorting reality. Neither am I talking about small errors, like the Browning/SIG confusion generated by Gatiss giving Moriarty that line in The Great Game. Everyone makes mistakes and gets stuff wrong – hell, I know I do – and most of the time the little things don’t matter and certainly don’t affect the story being told.
What I’m interested in are the use of situations/places/events that really happened/are happening now, or the inclusion of difficult and often misunderstood topics. For example stories set in certain periods of history ( WWI, the Afghanistan conflict, Stratford in Shakespeare’s day, to name a few) or stories that delve deep into things like the slave trade, racism, homophobia, mental illness, drug addition, sexual assault or certain sexual practices.
My personal view is that research is important.
I believe that the written word has power and, even now, when we’re bombarded by hoaxes and ‘internet jokes’ 24/7, we still tend to put weight on things we take the time to read.
Even TV shows, novels, short stories and fan fics.
Because when facts are woven into believable stories we tend to get swept away and start to take in everything on the page, regardless of whether it’s factually correct. I think this is something that is especially true of historical fiction and works on subjects that get the emotions pounding.
Which doesn’t matter so much when it’s something silly (Dan Brown, I’m looking at you and your forewords that claim truth and accuracy here) but it does matter if it’s the first exposure someone is getting to a subject and they haven’t got anything to set it against.
Take 50 Shades of Grey.
No, really, take it. As far away as you like!
I don’t care how badly written it is – although I think whoever edited it should be, if not shot, at least maimed or severely injured for the huge disservice they’ve done to the publishing industry – but I do care that it can be seen to be normalising what is essentially an abusive relationship and gives a skewed and mostly false impression of BDSM.
Now I know I’m no expert on that topic because I’m not in the scene myself, but I am wholly aware – having done some research after a few interesting experiences in my own, failed, marriage and talked to various people who are involved – that what Christian Grey does is NOT acceptable BSDM practice. It is, when you get right down to it, mental and physical abuse and brain washing, wrapped up in appalling English and pushed to one side in favour of inane descriptions of his eyes, how his trousers are hanging and other ridiculous things.
I have mentioned this point of view to a couple of people since I read the thing and their response was – and I’ve paraphrased here:
“So what? You feel that the depiction of the relationship between Christian and Anastasia is one which is unhealthy and potentially really dangerous. Just dismiss it as wrong and close the book. Why are you bothered?”
Well, I’m bothered because I’m concerned about the effect the book might have on people who are reading it and aren’t aware it’s not quite right. I’m worried about the teenagers with no prior experience of any sort of relationship who end up thinking that they should put up with that sort of behaviour when they do find someone, even if they don’t want to be treated like that. And it makes my blood boil when I think about the people who will use it – and they will, believe me they will – to validate and make acceptable how they want to treat/are already treating their partners.
Maybe I’m over reacting. Maybe I’m putting to much stock in the power of the written word or not giving enough credit to the people who read the book to know what to disregard. All I know is that I wouldn’t have written the story E.L. James did if I’d set out to write about that topic. I wouldn’t have been able to.
Any how, setting that particular can of worms aside, the issue that my morning reading really highlighted was the accuracy, or otherwise, of the depiction of time and place in a story.
What do you do when writing about a particular event or period of history? How do you approach that?
Personally, I think it is incredibly disrespectful to put characters in a scenario that actually happened without doing research into what it was like and, at the very least, finding out whether what I’m intending to do with the characters would have been possible. I feel especially strongly about making sure I make an effort to at least get the basics right for stories set in times of war.
To do otherwise feels, to me, like trampling over the graves of those who lost their lives in the conflict I’m writing about (and I’m not just talking about the soldiers here, I’m talking about the civilians too). It feels disrespectful to their memories and really upsets me.
Plus, with the current Afghanistan conflict – which does feature in a significant amount of BBC Sherlock fan fiction – my feelings are compounded by the fact that it is an ongoing situation. Our soldiers are still fighting out there, some living in incredibly harsh conditions, and just praying they make it to the end of their deployment alive. And the Afghan population are just as desperate for an end to the fighting so that they can start to rebuild their homes, lives and families which have been ripped apart, some literally, by this war.
Now I’m not suggesting that no-one should write about these things at all.
Far from it.
Nothing should be off limits to a writer and everything needs to be written about; especially things that many people will never experience first hand. Fiction provides a fantastic way of remembering the past, sharing the present and opening people’s eyes to what is going on around them.
I’m also not suggesting that every single bit of research an author does needs to be shoehorned into the story no matter what; less is most definitely more in some cases. I’m just a firm believer in having a really good idea of what’s happening around the protagonists so the salient details can be included at the right time.
What I’m trying to say – and trying is probably the operative word because this is an emotive subject for me and I’m probably letting my feeling bubble through my writing and thus not being very clear – is this:
I think that when someone writes stories for public consumption – be that through writing scripts, novels published through publishing houses, self-publishing or simply through fan fiction sites and blogging – that they have a duty of care, to their readers, their setting and topics, and to themselves, to do their research and do their best to get it as right as they can.
And by that I mean actually doing their best, not just paying lip service to the idea.
If the story they want to tell doesn’t fit with the facts of the time period, situation or place, then they need to either tell the story in a different way or make it very, very plain, up front, that they know they’re messing with whichever bit they need to mess with to get the story to work.
And what if they don’t know whether they’re getting something right or not?
What if they haven’t done any research, or have only done a bit and – for whatever reason – don’t want to do any more?
Then I think they have the responsibility to make that explicitly clear. I also think they should be prepared to be called out on it – these situations, experiences and periods in time matter to people and if someone, inadvertently or not, trivialises an aspect of that situation or glosses over a major aspect of it in something they’ve written then I think they should be willing to hear about it from the people who’ve taken the time to read their work.
I know that I will never, ever, get all the details correct in my stories about Afghanistan – I haven’t been there, I’m not a soldier, and books, memoirs and DVD documentaries of the conflict can only take me so far – but I would really, really, rather be told when I’m getting stuff wrong so I can fix it.
The beauty of fan fiction (and e-publishing to some extent) is you can fix errors really easily, simply by clicking the edit button and getting on with it. It isn’t set in stone, forever fixed and immutable, it can be as fluid as you need it to be. Neither, for that matter, is a published work – later editions can be amended, added to, completely re-written if you want to. You only have to look at Tolkien and his many changes to subsequent editions of Lord of the Rings to know it’s possible.
Which is why, if someone points out something I’ve got wrong, I’ll go and fix the error. I’ve done so in the past and will do so in the future. I did it yesterday, actually, when I found something in an Afghanistanmemoir I was re-reading which contradicted something I’d put in a fic I’d already posted. I went straight back and changed the fic. I couldn’t not have done, actually, it would have niggled at me too much!
It’s also why, for the novels I’m working on, I’m going to try and to find beta readers who have good background knowledge of Afghanistan and WWI, as well as people who will look at the story as a whole. That way I’ll have a little more confidence that I’m not writing something completely incorrect or including any disastrous misinterpretations of any of the research I’ve done.
Is it just me that feels this way?
Does anyone else think like this or am I losing the plot?
Talk to me, people, please. I really want to know how you feel about this!